Defining “Ugly Church”

An ugly church can meet in a cathedral, a multi-million dollar facility, in a ‘60s era church building resembling an upside-down ark, a storefront, or under a highway overpass.  It is not defined by where it meets, nor the size of its building or bank account. They can be found in the grittiest urban core, the remotest Native American village, the wealthiest beach-side community and the most common suburb.   It is not defined by its appearance or its location. It is defined by its adherence to the mission and message of Christ. It is defined by closely following the steps of its scandalous Savior. In short, the Church should be found where one would expect to find Jesus if He were walking the earth here and now,  and filled with the people for whom His heart broke.

An ugly church is both welcoming to the outsider and outcast, and also present in the margins and fringes. It’s hard for a church to get truly and honestly ugly while keeping a clubhouse mentality.  It’s the rare church, in my experience, that would overtly shun the smelliest, dirtiest, hopeless “sinner” that darkens the door, but just as rare are those seeking them out. The ugly church is one that is not only sent but goes.  As Christ’s body, it goes into the world, to the dark and desperate places where we would expect to find Jesus.  And it does so, not in condescension and pity, but in humility and compassion. An ugly church is full of people who know where they came from and from what they were saved.  

As I look at my own congregation, I ask myself, “Would Jesus come to this church?  Would He fit in here, or would He–and His unwieldy and reckless love–feel out of place?”  What I’m really asking is, “Are we an active part of His church?  Do we love others in the neighborhood and community around us in the same unwieldy and reckless way He loves us?”  

The more I look around, the more I see Jesus in places the pretty church is too reluctant to go.  I see Jesus driving a young man to the free clinic, praying with a heroin addict on a street corner, and kneeling with an immigrant on a sidewalk.  Most often these days, I see Him hanging out on the corner across from a boarded up convenience store where the addicted, broke, and broken congregate.  Occasionally, His Church shows up to offer a meal or a word of encouragement. Too rarely does it stay to find out about Patty’s sister who overdosed (and Patty’s own losing battle with alcohol), or listen to Raymond’s rambling stories, or how Kyle is dealing with his cystic fibrosis while living on the street.  Too few stick around to celebrate Rinaldo’s green card and new job, or Jannatil’s GED diploma. Too few are willing to engage for the long haul, to befriend and live in relationship with them, to not say a single prayer in passing but to prayerfully and purposefully love them on an ongoing basis.

The ugly church doesn’t just engage in “drive by” missions or evangelism.  It doesn’t swoop into low-income communities with turkeys on Thanksgiving or backpacks at the beginning of a new school year, only to return to its comfortable cloister elsewhere.  It doesn’t just collect food for the hungry, but intentionally breaks bread with them. The ugly church chooses to “live by” those that others would rather “drive by.” My friend, Kurt Gerrold, who is best described as a street pastor, sums up the ethic of the ugly church: “to go where no one wants to go, to be with people no one wants to be with.”  It’s especially the “be with” that sets the ugly church apart.

Even though I’ve been talking about poorer communities, “ugliness” and brokenness exist even in well-heeled neighborhoods.  There are families going through divorce, disability, and bankruptcy. There are families with teenagers addicted to pills and pornography.  There are families struggling through chronic illness or trying to figure out how to parent a child with special needs. When debts and doubts mount, or it becomes unbearable to lie and respond to every “how are you” with “fine, thanks”–is the Church the first place to find solace?  Or is it a place to avoid until things get better? Being human is messy business and we’re compelled to keep our messiness to ourselves and avoid that of others. An ugly church, in contrast, wades into the mess with love, humility, and understanding. After all, it’s what Jesus would do.



It all started with a few conversations about struggling churches and struggling communities.  One had lost touch and the other had lost hope. Increasingly, it seemed that the only churches that weren’t struggling were the ones not in struggling neighborhoods.  Church plants popped up in the more comfortable suburbs and exurbs, targeting the middle and upper-middle classes. Resources funneled into attractive buildings and high-tech programs.  Struggling churches and communities continued to struggle. The needle, on that score, didn’t seem to flinch. So, it became a topic of conversation that turned into a point of conviction: the Church needs to change.

First, I think we need to be clear on what the Church is.  The Church is the body of Christ, the physical presence of Christ on earth.  It’s composed of believers called out of the world, transformed by grace, and thrust back into the world to work and witness for Christ and the Kingdom of God.  Even though the Church is often confused with its property and programs, it’s the people of God that makes the Church.

I love the Church.  I love the mish-mash diversity of its members, the redemptive promise of broken people being restored and recreated into something new and beautiful.  I love that the Church is God’s chosen instrument through which to engage the world, even with her warts and wrinkles. Sometimes I think it’s ridiculous that God would choose to use something as ungainly and awkward as the Church to represent Him and His mission.  However, God chooses to use the foolish to shame the wise.

I’ve had the privilege of experiencing varied expressions of the Church from rural Appalachia to urban Portland, Oregon, small town Washington State to metro Boston.  My observations, obviously, are my own; I don’t pretend to know every situation in every context. The stories shared here are primarily from personal experience or from first-person accounts.  My hope is that through these stories and snapshots, a conversation will be sparked about the disconnect between the Church and those most desperately in need of Christ. And out of those conversations, changes will come.